Can you imagine living on a street where you could pick up just about anything you might need for an elegant dinner party, from rare wines and a festive cake to sandals and a floral centrepiece, all within a five-minute walk of your front door?
I couldn’t, either, until my husband and I rented a studio apartment on the rue Delambre, an inconspicuous four-block street in Paris’s 14th arrondisement.
The street gave us a glimpse into everyday Parisian life, far from the tourist glitz of the Eiffel Tower and the Louvre.
Early one morning, I watched waiters in black trousers and white aprons set out wicker chairs and marble-topped tables on the patio of Le Dôme, a famous fish restaurant on the corner. To my fascination, the furniture was arranged to give every patron a good view of the street. People-watching appears to be the Parisian version of catching the playoffs on a big-screen TV.
Soon, an elderly woman walking a Shih Tzu passed by, and a man carrying a huge tray of unbaked pastry shells crossed the street and disappeared through Le Dome’s service entrance. Nearby, florists unloaded enormous bouquets of sunflowers from a hatchback and carried them into Fleurs Hélène Guionet. Meanwhile, chicly coiffed moms (and a few dads) cajoled their children on the short walk to the École maternelle, a nursery school whose menu—posted near the front door—noted that the tots would be dining on lamb sauté and Camembert that week.
From a street sign, I discovered that the little road was named after astronomer Jean-Baptiste-Joseph Delambre. In the 1790s, while measuring a geographic meridian, Delambre was repeatedly arrested because the deposed king had originally hired him to carry out this task and revolutionists thought his scientific tools looked suspicious. No doubt, he would have some issues with the revolutionary slogan cut into the stonework above the nursery school door: liberté, égalité, fraternité.
Much later, after returning to Ottawa, I learned that the building next to our apartment once housed the Dingo Bar, where Ernest Hemingway first met F. Scott Fitzgerald in 1925. For one small street, I thought, the rue Delambre had quite the hidden life.
By 9:15am, the last workers were straggling toward the two Métro stops that bracket the ends of the street, and most shops were not yet open. The rue Delambre settled into a short lull—the perfect time for window-shopping.
I perused the odd collection of items in the dusty window of a nameless antique shop, even though I couldn’t imagine what use anyone might have for an orange rotary phone or a 45rpm record of Hungarian dance music.
More suited to my needs was the wine shop on the ground floor of our apartment building. Across the street, the tiny Marché Franprix grocery store yielded everything we needed to make simple meals in our galley kitchen—although we couldn’t resist adding to our purchases at the Fromage Rouge cheese shop and the nearby bakery. Other temptations abounded: lingerie in the window of Grain de Soie, beautiful notepaper in a stationery store, funky purses and hats at Légitime Folie. But there were more mundane businesses, too: a dry cleaner, a bookie, a dictionary shop, an employment agency and a drugstore with a condom vending machine outside for those late-night, um, emergencies.
Speaking of late nights: the rue Delambre stayed active long after the elderly lady with her Shih Tzu and the Camembert-munching munchkins were tucked up in bed. There were restaurants specializing in Korean barbecue and Scandinavian fare, as well as a seven-screen cinema. The Blue Sky bar, two doors down from our apartment, was open from 6pm to 5am, seven days a week. A small sign in the window urged patrons to respect the tranquility of the neighbourhood when leaving. And, miraculously, everyone did. Not once were we wakened by street noise during our stay.
A little while ago, someone asked me why I travel. He couldn’t understand why I would face all the hassle and expense. For me, places like the rue Delambre are the lure. Sure, I could read about life in Paris, but there’s nothing quite as mind altering as seeing, right in front of you, that there are other ways of living than the comfortable groove one inhabits at home. A place where few people own a car. Where women drift into the grocery store on clouds of perfume. Where the chairs at the local bar face the street instead of a TV.
Immersing myself in the life of one street, for one week, reminds me that other lives and other possibilities exist. And that’s something I can’t really get from a book.